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HOW TO SELL ANYTHING

The Comcast Call: Why Every Single Customer Matters

How much influence does that unhappy customer have?
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Sometimes the whole notion of customer service goes terribly awry.

"I'm just trying to figure out what it is about Comcast service that you don't want to keep. Why are you not liking this service?" the rep demanded to know from a customer who'd been asking the company--for 13 minutes--to close his account.

"Actually, this phone call is an amazing example," the customer answered. A lot of people agree. That call, posted on SoundCloud, has now had millions of listeners.

Despite Comcast's denials, nobody doubts that attempting to cajole, bully, or arm-wrestle customers out of canceling their service is standard practice at this and many other companies. The difference this time is that the customer was Ryan Block, a high-profile technology journalist with more than 80,000 Twitter followers who could easily spread his discontent to the four corners of the Web. Ironically, Block works at AOL, which pioneered the no-you-can't-cancel-us strategy. Someone I know encountered equal resistance years ago when she called the service to close her father's account--because he had died.

What can we learn?

When the editors at Inc.com suggested writing about that Comcast call, my first reaction was: What can an entrepreneur learn from this? That it would be nice to be a giant cable company and not care how angry you make people?

But there is a valuable lesson, and here it is: Every. Single. Customer. Matters.

There is no such thing as just one customer. Large or small, they all have a circle of influence. So here's how to treat each one as though he or she can make your life miserable--because at least some of the time, that will be true:

1. Put the relationship ahead of the sale.

Early in the call, Block admitted that he was switching to a different provider. Lower price? Better options? Block doesn't say. But if the rep had left him feeling warm and fuzzy about Comcast, there's at least a small chance he'd have considered switching back if the new service proved unsatisfactory. The odds of that now are zero.

2. Forget "overcoming objections."

"Why don't you want our service anymore?" the rep asked over and over, in various ways. His obvious plan was to get Block to voice his problems with Comcast in order to talk him out of them, or perhaps offer a discount to lessen the pain. But customers don't want their objections overcome--they want to be listened to, understood, and respected.

So when you hear an objection to your product or service--unless it's factually inaccurate--don't try to overcome the objection. Acknowledge the problem and then say how you will solve it or why you can't.

3. Fulfill customer requests promptly.

"Can you disconnect my service?" Block asked toward the end of the call.

"How does that help you?" the rep responded.

A direct request from a customer should always be met with a direct response, either telling the customer when the request will be fulfilled, or explaining why it can't be. If a customer asks for something that's unwise, you should say why that is. Once.

4. Keep meticulous records.

Customers can be mistaken. They can also lie. Though it's clear from the recording that Block did neither, you may be called out someday in the court of social media by a disgruntled customer who has the facts wrong. Having the right facts at your fingertips will be your best defense.

5. Be Honest.

The thing that most infuriates me about this whole episode are two sentences from Comcast's official response: "The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action."

Until yesterday (the day after the call went viral) 172 comments to that statement, mostly from other Comcast users, made clear how common Block's experience really is. I admired Comcast's honesty in leaving those comments in place, but today they have all been removed. In case there's any doubt, former Comcast employees explained to Business Insider and The Verge the inner workings that make phone calls like this one "average."

"You have to follow a certain path. And if you don't follow it, you can be written up," said one. "They'll make up something like, 'You didn't ask this question,' or 'You should have done that.'"

Another explained that retention specialists get a low hourly wage plus a commission that takes a hit every time a customer succeeds in canceling. Since they also lose money for long phone conversations, there's an obvious incentive for reps to annoy people into hanging up (which sounds like what this one was trying to do) or even hang up themselves. In either case, the account would remain intact.

As to the second sentence, about investigating and taking quick action, Block has asked repeatedly that the rep not be fired. I hope Comcast listens. He was simply unlucky enough to be recorded while following incentives the company itself laid out. Firing him would just add injury where there's already been enough insult.

Like this post? Sign up here for Minda's weekly email, and you'll never miss her columns. Next time: Why self-employed people are happier than everyone else.

 

Last updated: Jul 17, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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